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Mainstream, VOL LV No 50 New Delhi December 2, 2017

Adivasi has no reason to Dance

Saturday 2 December 2017



by Debatra Dey

Adwasi will not Dance by Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar; Speaking Tiger, New Delhi; 2017; pages 189.

Sometimes it seems that the border-line between fiction and reality is shrouded in a cloud of confusion. It is hardly possible to make a distinction between fiction and non-fiction when buried truths come up in a collection of short stories of tribal India particularly from the hard soil of poverty-striken Jharkhand. The controversial book, Adivasi will not Dance, by Hansda Sowvendra Sekhar, in its ten short stories, leads the reader towards the horizon of destitution and exclusion. Being a person from a non-literary background it might appear to be audacious to put a note on a modern literary work; yet the provocations one experiences while reading the work is irresistible.

There have been mountains of reports, recommendations and policy-prescriptions at the government and non-government levels for the upliftment of tribals or bringing them into the mainstream in the last seven decades of our independence. They are the most dispensable population in this country having the largest share among the evicted people as we pursued ‘development’ after independence. In terms of the human development ladder they are at the bottom rungs comparable to the level of sub- Saharan Africa. They are eight per cent of the Indian population, mostly living in the rural hinterland, isolated by geography, economics, culture and what not!

The book is a kind of monologue with little ray of hope to alter the scenario. It starts with an Adivasi family of four that originated from Jharkhand’s Ghatshila and was compelled to shift from Bhubaneswar to Vadodara since four years. Now living in a much more cleaner and organised town as the tenants of a South Indian origin landlord, they had to hide or sacrifice many things including their ethnicity, food habits of regular non-vegetarian items and later on the shells of egg when they secretly started to cook them in their kitchen. It would immediately drag the reader towards the incident of Akhlaq in Delhi on the suspicion of keeping beef in his refrigerator. The trauma of Panmuni-jhi, the central character of the story, in coping up with the new food habit prescribed by the larger society during the period of 2000-2004, is very much spread over from Gujarat to the heart of India. A dark shadow lurks between imagination and hard reality.

The story of Talamai, a young migratory worker in her twenties, is very common in an unequal world. The tribal population in the districts of Jharkhand, close to West Bengal, is used to a yearly migration for their survival in the agriculturally rich districts of the latter particularly Howrah, Hooghly and Burdwan. The distress of these migratory families, including sexual harassment by the middle- men, landlords and others, has been well documented by Kumar Rana in his book ‘Gram Charader Gram-e’ (In the village of village leavers). It was also written around the same place— Pakur district of Jharkhand where namal, meaning temporary migration, is associated with the adivasi lives. Coming back to our story, hungry Talamai was caught under the scrutiny of an RPF staff in an evening of November at Burdwan station while she was waiting for the train on the way to migration. The rest is usual: she was offered little food and fifty rupees in lieu of her companionship for hardly twenty minutes. The indifferent or rather nonchalant attitude of Talamai from easy compliance with the offer given by the RPF staff to having food after providing pleasure to that person presents her state of mind, the skill she has had to acquire as the rule of the game from others. Her unspoken words may be harsher in deliverning a slap on the civilised world, her protest in not reacting.

P. Sainath had documented the mockery of government schemes meant for the poor in his celebrated book Everybody loves a good drought in the pre-liberalisation period. But the country could not liberate itself from petty corruption at the grassroots during its tryst with economic liberalisation in the last quarter century. This has been captured in a story depicting how neo- natal benefits have been siphoned off. From the inside the author narrates how rich and powerful sections of the rural society continue to margi-nalise these powerless souls and even medical proof is not sufficient for the latter in a false case. The story ends with no fiction. “In the meanwhile, in the Santhal Parganas, so many Santhal girls will have been sold, so many Santhal boys implicated on false charges, so many FIRs filed in police stations, just for warring parties to get even with each other.” (p. 57)

In a lenghty story it is a woman of the Gaund community from the milkman caste who used to run a desi-liquor shop, ultimately became the kept of a Babu in an adjoining city. But the interesting part is the chemistry between her and another woman of the Harijan community with whom she once shared a husband. Instability of the latter’s life even forced her to send her daughter to the former’s house which did not sustain. This marginalised woman seems to reflect the hollow morality of the broader society in a world where only money matters.

The loneliness and helplessness of single and aged tribal women have appeared in two stories. Their voice rarely draws the attention of the mainstream media or literature. They often become victims of witch-hunt in remote rural places due to their degraded position within their own community. The struggles, responsi-bilities and duties they have to perform throughout their lives probably turn them persons without any self-identity and self- proclamation.

Mangal Murmu, a common tribal man well known as a lyricist and composer of traditional Santhal songs in his vicinity, has been recognised at the government level that is also reflected in his collection of medals and trophies. He falls into utter confusion as he is invited by the government in the inauguration of a power plant owned by the private corporate house by the President of India to give a musical performance of his group while his daughter- in-law’s family was evicted along with many as their land had been acquired for the very purpose of the power plant. They have also fallen in between Hindu ideologues and Christian missionaries and both want to include the tribal people under their religious clan. Tribal India becomes the most lucrative place for mining ranging from West Bengal to the hinterland of Telengana via Odisha, Chhattis-garh, Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand. Mangal Murmu, considering himself an heir of Birsa, does not find any reason to dance in front of the President of the nation until he and his ilk have been ensured their land, their livelihood. This resistance is the eternal voice of the tribal people revealed in their repeated armed revolts against the colonial ruler. The current Indian state has also had the experience of tribal uprising from Telangana to the spring thunder of Naxalbari five decades ago. This legacy of dissent has been considered as the greatest threat to the internal security by the state in its own way but their fight for jal, jangal, zameen is iterated in the story ‘Adivasi will not Dance’ by Mangal Murmu, the representative of the oppressed.

Simple narrative is the cornerstone of the book. It is a journey from the crisis of an individual to the crisis of the whole community as the crisis of a migratory family ultimately extending into a civil war between two communities in Gujarat 2002 which is likely to be replicated throughout the nation in its truest sense. Mangal Murmu, the bard, takes us away from an individual to the question of existence and survival of the whole community under the regime of the neo-liberal policy, aptly contextualised in the current state of our country’s political economy.

The reviewer is an Assistant Professor in Economics, Srikrishna College, Bagula (West Bengal).

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